For me, learning a foreign language is like getting in shape. If you don’t learn on a daily basis or every other day, you get out of shape, you’re getting nowhere. If you spend too much time learning (e.g., several hours a day every day), you get burned out. That’s why I created language workouts.
If you want to work out, you can buy a gym membership. You can build your own gym at home. Or you can just buy a jump rope. Or you can keep your money and simply do push-ups.
My point is, if you don’t have money, it doesn’t matter. You can still learn a language. And I encourage you to NOT spend money early on. Don’t get fancy. Adopt a broke mentality, and keep it simple. Sure, later on, you can pay for a personal tutor to refine your pronunciation or communication skills.
The goal is to set up a sustainable routine to learn and maintain your target language. Here’s my step-by-step method (also called “Triple Ds”) to create your personal routine:
- Define your goal
- Dominate your schedule
- Dive in!
1. Define your goal
Why are you learning a foreign language?
Out of curiosity?
Are you traveling to Italy next month?
Or you’re dating a foreigner?
Or you simply have too much spare time on your hands?!
Your why will help you decide how much time you must dedicate to language learning each day. But beware! There’s no magic recipe here. If you’re Italian, and your goal is to hold a 5-minute conversation in Spanish within the next six months, then it’s going to be much easier than if you’re American and need to speak perfect Chinese in two weeks! **and btw, if you have a magic recipe for the latter, contact me asap!!**
Finding a good system may take time. It’s all trial and error. But if you’re consistent, put in the hours and if you’re honest with yourself, then you’ll find a way that works for you. I want to be honest and transparent with you. I don’t want to sell you no perfect one-size-fits-all method. It simply doesn’t exist!
So first of all, be clear on what your objective is. And make it quantifiable. You want to be able to track your progress.
If it’s “I just want to speak French”. Well, that’s not quantifiable and you have no way of measuring your progress. What “speak” means to you? You want to be able to sing Stromae’s songs? Watch the news? Or go to a wine tasting in France? It could mean anything. Instead, “I want to be able to chat about WWII with French veterans without using any English words” is better. Now you know you have to aim at WWII’s vocabulary and resources. You also know that you need to be able to hold a conversation in French without translating anything. So you can have quantified thresholds: “hold a 1-minute conversation”, “hold a 2-minute conversation”, “hold a 10-minute conversation, and you get to ask two words if needed”.
If you have no idea, here are other examples:
- understand 75% of Dani Russo’s videos on YouTube without subtitles
- hold a 15-minute conversation about cheese without using English (or your mother tongue)
- commit to memory 10 Shakira songs in Spanish
- prepare a 10-minute presentation in Russian about Russian literature
Then you can track your goal, and even create smaller goals to measure your progress:
- understand 25% (then 50%) of Dani Russo’s videos
- hold a 5-minute conversation about cheese OR hold a 10-minute conversation about camembert only **good luck with that!**
- commit to memory 1 Shakira song per week
- write a 1-min presentation in Russian and read it out loud in front of a camera
2. Dominate your schedule
Now look at your schedule. When can you spend time to learn a foreign language? Do you have daily or weekly routines with available time slots? When are you wasting time on social media? Or maybe spending too much time in the shower? I’m not telling you to get dirty, or to stop watching those adorable cats on YouTube. You do whatever you want with your life, of course. But if you want to get serious about learning a foreign language, then you have to free some time in your schedule. Just like working out, make your learning session a non-negotiable item on your to-do list.
For me, I do it in the morning. I wake up, and immediately watch a few videos. I’m currently maintaining English, Spanish and Italian. I spend 10-20 min a day watching videos in each one of these languages first thing in the morning. Then I focus on the language I’m learning. Right now, it’s Brazilian Portuguese. So next, I spend 30-60 min reviewing Brazilian songs (either singing along, or just following with the lyrics), and/or watching Damon and Jo.
For you, the best moment might be right before going to bed. Or during your lunch break. Find what’s best for you. And commit to it! Consistency is key. You don’t get a six-pack by working out once a month… **again, if you know a way to get a six-pack working out only once a month, contact me asap!!**
3. Dive in!
Now it’s time to get dirty! Here’s how to get started: Spend the first week to set up your routine and to discover the foundations of your target language. Find out which sounds are difficult for you to pronounce, and focus on them. Do drills, record yourself, watch tutorials on YouTube. Then read the wikipedia page to get a basic grasp of your target language’s structure. Maybe the future tense is easy to form (in French, ‘aller’ + verb) or non-existent (e.g., in Finnish). Maybe it’s a phonetic language (like Spanish) or a complete mess (silent e in French anyone?!). Your task here is to be a detective. What are the most simple principles that are going to make a big difference? Next step: input, input & input. Sing Disney songs. Watch Easy languages on YouTube. Jump on iTalki & Skype to have your first conversation. Again, you only get big arms if you do push-ups or lift weights. And you only become comfortable with your target language if you practice over, and over, and over, and over…and over again!
I’m a bit sloppy, and this last paragraph is messy. So let me sum up:
- type “[name of your target language] phonology” in Google, and go to the wikipedia page
- identify the sounds that you are not used to
- practice them, record yourself, watch tutorials on YouTube to correct them
You could easily spend a week or two on this, but I find it incredibly boring. So I might spend some time on it, then remember what kind of sounds I have to pay attention to. And quickly move on to native content.
- go to the wikipedia page of your target language
- skim it, you don’t have to read it all
- be the detective: don’t remember everything, what’s making a great difference?
- type “common mistakes [target language]” in Google, and find what you’re likely to do wrong
This was the theoretical part. Depending on your target language, you could spend a week or just one hour on it. My recommendation is to not stress over it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember that the French negation is usely just “pas” instead of “ne…pas”. The goal here is to get a basic grasp of your target language, to understand how it works (SOV vs SVO) and to get a few tricks to kickstart your learning experience. Then it’s all about content and interactions. Do you like singing? Do you like watching videos? Do you love talking? Here are a few suggestions to dive into your target language:
- listen to and sing Disney songs in your target language (you can easily find them on YouTube)
- watch Easy languages on YouTube (native content with double subtitles)
- find a language partner on iTalki (for free!)
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any textbook or SRS system (aka flashcards). That was intentional. For two simple reasons. One, I find them boring. Two, I don’t think they’re efficient. I believe you need way more audio than writing in order to learn a foreign language. Textbooks don’t offer that. Or they might come with a CD of recordings. But most of the time those recordings sound like robots. It doesn’t feel natural at all. And flashcards are incredibly boring (ok, that’s just my point of view). If you come back to a song you’ve already listened to, or to a video you’ve already watched, then you are building your own SRS system.
I’m not saying you have to discard them completely. If you like this kind of thing, go ahead, dive in! I don’t enjoy them but everytime I read a French bescherelle, I learn something new. **and yes, French is my mother tongue…come on, you’re taking advice from a guy that don’t even know his mother tongue that well?!!** But beware! It shouldn’t be your main focus. If your goal is to eventually communicate with natives, then you need audio. And you might as well use audio right from the beginning.
Wait, didn’t you say you created language workouts?!
Yes, you got me there. I haven’t mentioned them once…yet. I’m getting there.
After your first week, once you have a basic grasp of your target language, and a list of resources you enjoy, you can establish a weekly schedule. **”how to find resources/native content in your target language” <– coming soon!** Let’s say you’re learning Spanish. And you have trouble with that trilled r. Then you can schedule 15 min every day to work on your trill until you get it right. Or you want to learn some Mexican slang. Then you can spend 20-30 minutes a day watching Mexican YouTubers.
The language workouts I created (well, tbh, some of them come from my brain, but others come from famous polyglots) are meant to help you set up your weekly schedule.
I just wanted to give a clear step-by-step method and some bullet points, but I feel like I’m stretching it. Anyways, one last paragraph about my personal approach.
My personal philosophy – Ropiquet the philosopher
When I start learning a new language, my goal is to understand YouTube videos. Because they speak so fast that then I can understand and converse with people. My end goal is to be able to communicate and connect with people. Yet I don’t put a heavy emphasis on speaking early on, because I get frustrated when I can’t explain what is on my mind, or when I don’t get what is being said to me. That’s why I spend time singing and on YouTube first.
These days, I’m doing the Couch potato for Spanish and Italian early in the morning for 10-20 minutes with each language. Then I do a Blind wine tasting or Interval training with Brazilian songs. Anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. If I have more time, or feel like it, I add a Fit couch potato for Brazilian with Damon and Jo, for 10-30 minutes. And later on in the day, I do a couple of minutes of Freestyle in Brazilian. I usually also have a Couch potato in English during the day, or listening to an audiobook while doing a real physical workout. **<– I should call this one The fit librarian**
And if you’ve read the whole page, then send me a message saying: “I love Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar. He’s truly the best. And they MUST give him a special oscar for his performance.”